Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"Big Fish" poised to make a Broadway splash next season

Kate Baldwin (left) and Norbert Leo Butz in a scene from "Big Fish."
by Misha Davenport
(cross-posted from Broadwayworld.com)

Never, ever begin a show with a hoedown. Much less a hoedown in the belly of a catfish.                           
Perhaps, I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Big Fish,” is a visually stunning, ambitious and thoroughly original musical currently enjoying its pre-Broadway tryout at the Oriental Theatre. It features Tony award-worthy performances by its leading talents Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin.
Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the 2003 Tim Burton film, the show features a book  by John August (who also penned the film) and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (more on the latter in a bit).
Norbert Leo Butz appears well on his way to another Tony nomination with his performance of patriarch Edward Bloom. A traveling salesman, Bloom is a world-class spinner of yarns. As played by Butz, he is less P.T. Barnum and more charming huckster who sees the ordinary world and its run-of-the-mill events as an opportunity for the magical and fantastic. Sure, he makes a few edits and stretches the truth along the way, but sometimes the world needs a little embellishing.
Kate Baldwin, singing "I Don't Need a Roof" in "Big Fish"
His wife Sandra (the lovely Kate Baldwin) is no stranger to Southern charm herself and for the most part indulges her husband in his tall tales. The second act ballad “I Don’t Need a Roof” has expressing her profound love for her husband and Baldwin’s performance is the emotional highlight of both the show and the score.
A father’s tall tales are a poor replacement for an absent father, however. Their son Will (played as a child on alternating days by Anthony Pierini and Zachary Unger and as an adult by Bobby Steggert) initially resents his father’s absences at all his baseball and soccer games and soon grows to resent his father’s tales. As an adult, Will is an award-winning journalist who has traveled the globe to expose the truth through his reporting.

His father’s cancer diagnosis forces the prodigal son to return home and for dad and son to come to terms with their relationship.
Essentially a memory play, father and son explore Edward’s life, albeit from two very different perspectives. Edward wants one more last chance to tell his stories complete with their exaggerations; his son simply wants to know the truth.
You will believe a man can fly (after being shot out of a cannon).
Thank goodness for the fanciful, however. Under Susan Stroman’s expert direction and choreography, Julian Crouch (scenic design) and Donald Holder (lighting design) are able to conjure up some truly magical moments of theater: a dark and haunted forest comes alive with bats, witches and scary trees, the stage overflows with brightly colored daffodils, and a  trio of elephants (seen from their backsides) dance in time beneath a big top circus.  When the big fish of the title finally makes her appearance late into the show, we’ve been treated to so many spectacles that the poor fish is horribly upstaged.
Lippa’s score and lyrics are perhaps the most complex that we have seen from the composer. There are definite strong points. Including the previously mentioned “I Don’t Need a Roof,” the score also features a bluesy “I Know What You Want” (song by Katie Thompson who plays the witch as equal parts Bonnie Tyler and Bonnie Raitt), “Bigger” (in which Ryan Andes as the giant Karl effortlessly sings and dances wearing stilts) and “Time Stops” (a splendid duet between Butz and Baldwin).

Much like “The Addams Family”( Lippa’s previous show that enjoyed a pre-Broadway run here) it’s in need of a new opening number. “The God’s Honest Truth” is equal parts hoedown and church-ish revival. It fails to set the magical tone of the rest of the piece.
Also at odds is the show’s final number “How It Ends.” For a man who had imagined living such a unique life, his final moments are perhaps a bit too quiet.
Still, the show has several months to fix these things. As it stands, “Big Fish” has enough in place to indicate it should make a big splash next season on Broadway.
“Big Fish” runs through May 5 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph. Tickets, $33-$100. Call (800) 775-2000. www.BroadwayInChicago.com.

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